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Mamata Banerjee's Sister Act At The Canonization Of Mother Teresa At The Vatican

Didi is a politician. The Mother was a nun. Yet in some ways they are sisters under the skin.

05/09/2016 12:18 PM IST | Updated 05/09/2016 12:49 PM IST
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Stefano Rellandini / Reuters
A tapestry depicting Mother Teresa of Calcutta is seen in the facade of Saint Peter's Basilica during a mass, celebrated by Pope Francis, for her canonisation in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican September 4, 2016.

Mother Teresa might have become St Teresa in the Vatican yesterday but Mamata Banerjee, our very own Didi, was the one who pulled the mother of all miracles in that city.

While the other dignitaries showed up at the canonization the way dignitaries do at these events, Didi one-upped them all. She ditched arrangements for a car and gathered her flock together as Team Bangla and walked all the way from her hotel to the St Peter's Square with, as she put it in a tweet, "songs on our lips".

Rabindrasangeet, of course. Mangaldweep jweley. Aguner Parashmoni. Delivered with verve if not always tune.

Nothing that one Nobel laureate would not do in the service of another. It was obviously well-choreographed and well-planned. Those not as versed in the lyrics as Mamata herself carried little cheat sheets. The little group led by the fearless leader in her white sari walked down the cobbled streets of the old city – the wandering minstrels of Bengal adroitly scoring a few political points along the way albeit hidden sweetly in melodious Rabindrasangeet.

Mamata Banerjee was an obvious choice for a Very Important Guest at the canonization of Teresa of Kolkata. Didi is the chief minister of the state and looms large over the city Mother Teresa made her home. But Didi did not want to be sent there as part of Government of India charity where she would be just one of many delegates in contingent led by Sushma Swaraj.

Mamata made it amply clear she was going to the Vatican but as the guest of the Missionaries of Charity, not the government of India. The Telegraph has reported that Mamata was especially miffed that the rooms she had booked at the Grand Melia had "been hijacked to accommodate Harsimrat Kaur, the Akali leader and a minister Modi's government."

"I have come as a commoner. I will attend like a commoner and I will return as a commoner," Mamata told journalists on her flight. But it costs a lot to keep Mamata common and abhimaan is a finely-tuned weapon, best served with a song on your lips as anyone who saw the Amitabh Bachchan – Jaya Bhaduri starrer of that name knows. The moral power of abhimaan against the backdrop of a saint is just as we say in these parts "too much".

Both the Aam Aadmi Party and Trinamool chose to distance themselves from the Centre's delegation to the Vatican but it was the singing-walking Didi who quickly grabbed the limelight. Media reports say that while Sushma Swaraj led the Indian delegation down the steps of St Peter's Basilica, it was Mamata Banerjee who was surrounded by clergy and lay persons alike wanting to click selfies with her. It was Mamata who was "ushered in the venue in a very special way by Sister Prema, Head of the Missionaries of Charity".

Didi is a politician. The Mother was a nun. Yet in some ways they are sisters under the skin. Mamata Banerjee like Mother Teresa spends her life in the same modest home though she obviously has the status now to move somewhere far more comfortable.

And Bengali television channels followed her great march with breathless song-by-song commentary. "Jabotiyo byabashta kora hoyechhio, kintu teeni paay hetey, prabhat pheri aakarey Aguner Parashmoni gaitey gaitey cholechhen Rome-r raasta dhorey (All necessary arrangements had been made but she is walking along the streets of Rome singing Aguner Parashmoni in the manner of Prabhat Pheri or the early morning rounds famous in Tagore's Shantiniketan.)

Didi is a politician. The Mother was a nun. Yet in some ways they are sisters under the skin. Mamata Banerjee like Mother Teresa spends her life in the same modest home though she obviously has the status now to move somewhere far more comfortable. She springs from the same crowded lanes of Kalighat where Mother Teresa first made her great impact by setting up a home for the dying. She has made her personal simplicity and probity her greatest selling points.

Even as sting operations and corruption scandals swirled around her party leaders, Didi has ensured her white sari remains untouched. She is still the leader who prefers her puffed rice snacks to anything ostentatious. She wears her plain saris and her flip-flops, adamantly holding on to the trappings of simplicity while wielding the reins of power.

When Mamata came to power in 2011, a friend involved in the world of theatre had said she performs the politics of the renunciate, seeking power but in the white sari of one who renounces it. He had said that she reminded him of that other woman in white so popular in Bengal – Ma Sarada, Ramakrishna's spiritual counterpart- whose picture hangs in so many homes across the state. But Sunday makes clear that perhaps it's the mantle of Mother Teresa our Didi is seeking to embrace, white sari and all. It's surely no accident she wanted to be seated with the nuns, not the politicians.

"We both asked each other what the other was doing there. I told (Mother) that I always worked for the people on the streets of Calcutta."

As she left the Square she told journalists about an encounter with Mother Teresa in the nineties during a curfew when both had reached the streets near Sealdah in Kolkata to help people stranded without food or services. "We both asked each other what the other was doing there. I told (Mother) that I always worked for the people on the streets of Calcutta."

The people of the streets of Kolkata might have no Mother anymore. But Didi is here. "Even the blue and white of her sari and her chappals has been taken over by Mamata," says writer Ruchir Joshi. "And the blue and white colours of the buildings, all of it done with no reference to Mother Teresa."

She does not need to. Mamata is a master in the art of political symbolism and of taking ownership of her state's cultural legacy. She did it with Suchitra Sen, Rituparno Ghosh and Mahasweta Devi, gun salutes and all. Now she will do it with St Teresa.

The state's tourism minister is already identifying spots on the state associated with its new saint from a church in Darjeeling to a convent on Entally Road in Kolkata. "After Sunday's canonisation programme, we expect an increased flow of foreign tourists to the State," says Gautam Deb, the tourism minister.

St Teresa is being absorbed into Trinamool's pantheon and the Indian government has been neatly upstaged in this passion play of Mother, Stepmother (Delhi) and Didi on the sidelines of the canonization in the Vatican.

Hats off to Didi. This was quite some Sister Act in the Vatican.

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